“Joker” and the uneasiness of criminal sympathy


The 2019 Joker film was an interesting animal, but what I think was more interesting was the reaction to it. I think one of the reasons (and there are a few) that people were opposed to the film is that it painted Arthur Fleck (the man who became the Joker) in a sympathetic light. By doing so, some argue that Joker condones violence. But in condemning the movie on those grounds, we show that our society largely feels that sympathy and condemnation cannot coexist. And that’s dangerous.

Sympathy and Condemnation

Arthur Fleck is a sympathetic guy. He cares for his elderly mother, he is mentally ill, he cannot hold a job, everything seems to be going against him. You really feel bad for him, and you should. If you have a right working moral compass, you should.

And then he murders people. He kills innocent people. He kills them in cold blood. And everything in your heart is screaming condemnation, and it should. If you have a right working moral compass, it should.

So the film puts you in this place where you feel honest godly sympathy for the man, and honest godly condemnation towards him. And frankly, it is a very uncomfortable place. But here’s the thing, that’s how real life and real crime often is. But sometimes we prefer movies that flatten out that tension. We want the bad guy to be cartoonishly evil, we don’t want to feel for him.

But that’s not how real life is. I work as a public defender in appeals, which means that most of my clients have already been convicted of something, and usually something pretty bad. Many of them have done terrible things, and many of them have also had terrible things happen to them. I think of a young man who came through our office who had shot and killed his mother, he ran to the police station, confessed and said he did it because she had previously molested him. When you hear that story, where does your heart go? Do you blame him or sympathize with him? As more facts drip down, we have the tendency to vacillate between sympathy and blame. He was 14. He had the foresight to hide the gun. He ran to the station without shoes. There was some evidence that his story may have been false. He asked investigating officer for a hug. He had previously been aggressive towards his father. He was aggressive at a point when the Department of Human Services was removing him from his mother’s house. The picture of the boy changes in my mind as I hear more and more, I want to either blame or sympathize with him. But I have to do both.

We need to be the type of people who can say we feel sorry for people without excusing their behavior. Or to say it another way, we need to be able morally condemn people and the evil they have done while still having our heart go out for what they have gone through.

The Heart of God

You tend to have two sides line up, one that says someone with a tragic story should not be responsible for their actions and the other who doesn’t care about the tragic upbringing of a criminal. Both of those ways are easy. What is hard is holding the tension of both condemnation and sympathy. And in understanding that tension, we understand some of the tensions of the heart of God. It has always struck me as interesting that God warns his people not to sin so he does not destroy them. (Deuteronomy 6:14-15) The question arises of whether God could he not just excuse their misdeeds. No, God has perfect wrath against sinners and perfect sympathy for those same sinners. He really loves and sympathizes with them, and he is really angry with them.

When God looks at his sinful creation, he is a boiling cauldron of love and wrath. And I don’t think we can begin to understand that until we feel a mixture of holy anger at the evil people have done, holy grief over the situations they were born in, and a holy wish to shake people by their collars until they realize how much they are ruining their lives.

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